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Analysis_

Filipinos are heading to the polls: What's at stake?

Ferdinand Marcos Jr is the frontrunner for the Philippines’ election on 9 May
Thousands of positions will be up for grabs in the Philippines’ upcoming election, including the presidency, vice presidency and parliamentary seats, with more than 67 million Filipinos eligible to cast ballots.

In early May, tens of millions of voters across the Philippines will vote for a new president, as the six-year term of the incumbent Rodrigo Duterte draws to a close. The son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos is currently the frontrunner among a field of high-profile candidates.  

The election on 9 May will also decide thousands of other positions, including the vice presidency, 12 Senate seats and 300 Lower House seats, as well as city mayors and governors. Over 67 million Filipinos are eligible to vote on election day, including more than 1.6 million voters overseas.

Who’s running?

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, a former senator whose father was ousted in the “People Power Revolution” in 1986, is leading opinion polls. The 64-year-old has secured as his running mate the current president’s daughter, Davao city mayor Sara Duterte, who is seeking to become vice president. The president and vice president roles are voted on separately.

Other contenders for the top job include the current vice president, Leni Robredo, a critic of Duterte’s violent war on drugs; former actor turned Manila mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso; and champion boxer and current senator Manny Pacquiao.

Emily Nabong, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, whose research focuses on climate change and mobility in the Philippines, said Marcos Jr’s choice of running mate is instructive.

“The Marcos’ key power base historically is in the north, specifically in the northern island of Luzon. His running mate, Sara Duterte, comes from the southern island of Mindanao. By running together, the pair will link two strong political families and hope to gain votes from each other’s supporters,” she said.

“So he’s combining a northern political dynasty with the daughter and legacy of a very well-liked current president, and hoping to reinforce his popularity.”

Familiar faces and ‘musical chairs’

Big personalities and familial dynasties are habitual themes in Filipino politics.

Speaking as part of SSEAC’s Philippines-focused webinar series in March this year, Professor Ronald Mendoza of Ateneo de Manila University noted the rise of political dynasties in the post-Marcos era, “who tend to dominate local politics and increasingly also national politics.”

“[This] concentration of political power essentially blocks the ability of the political system to introduce deep changes and deep reforms,” he said.

Professor Mendoza identifies two main types of dynasties in the country: a ‘thin’ type, where family and close associates replace each other in political positions sequentially over time, and a ‘fat’ type, where they occupy different political positions simultaneously across a jurisdiction.  

The Marcos family’s political comeback has exhibited this web of political influence, with various family members occupying political positions at both local and national level since the mid-90s, in what Professor Mendoza likens to a game of “musical chairs.”

 

view of city of Manila

Credit: Adobe Stock

Contested legacy

With Ferdinand Marcos Jr widely tipped to win in May, the legacy of his father’s rule, which stretched from 1965 to 1986, is in the spotlight. The late dictator ruled under martial law for nearly a decade, with corruption and abuses endemic during his time in office.

But some in the Philippines also look favourably on the period as one where infrastructure development flourished, according to Filipino-born Arvin Hadlos, a PhD candidate in the School of Civil Engineering.

“After the dictatorship, there was the promise of a better Philippines. That was where the ‘People Power Revolution’ came into being. However, post-Marcos politics was contested and controversial as well,” said Mr Hadlos, who is researching the application of local and indigenous knowledge in the context of disaster risk reduction in the country.

“My theory is that people weren’t able to see a better Philippines after the dictatorship of Marcos. And then years and years later, here comes his son running for president.” 

What’s (not) on the political agenda

Ferdinand Marcos Jr has spoken of “unity” and continuing the legacy of President Duterte. Vice president Leni Robredo has put forward plans to invest in healthcare and a post-Covid jobs recovery initiative.

But in a country frequently battered by disasters, climate change as a campaign issue has been conspicuously absent, according to Dr Aaron Opdyke, a Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering whose research largely focuses on the Philippines.

“Typhoon Odette (Rai), which hit in December last year, was one of the largest typhoons and most damaging to impact the Philippines. Odette brought to the centre continued debates about investments in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation,” he said.

While the candidates were recently quizzed on their climate credentials at a presidential debate, Dr Opdyke cites a need for any future government to do more on these issues. 

Campaign shifts online

Dr Aim Sinpeng studies the relationships between digital media and political participation in Southeast Asia. She sees a shift, compared to the 2016 election, in the online platforms candidates are using in the Philippines to get their messages out. 

We learned in our research on the 2016 campaign that it’s not the most polished, most professional social media campaigning that necessarily wins
Dr Aim Sinpeng

“The primary platform in 2016 was Facebook, and it’s now changed to YouTube and TikTok. This is reflective of how these two platforms have gained in popularity and usage in the Philippines over time,” she said.

“The interesting thing is that they’re both visual-based platforms, so the kind of content that is used now in campaigning is very video-based. I think it gives leverage to candidates and parties that can constantly engage with creating content by video – which is a lot more work and requires more resources in some ways than just simply putting out messages or a photo.”

A second trend Dr Aim Sinpeng sees is the rise of lesser-known online influencers.

“I think especially because of TikTok, you’re seeing a lot more influencers who are not known to be politically affiliated with anyone, but are good at TikTok and are now being used to help mobilize political campaigns,” she said. 

“So we’re seeing a rise in these influencer individuals, especially on TikTok, that are more diversified and it’s much harder to track their direct link with a political party or candidate.”

“We learned in our research on the 2016 campaign that it’s not the most polished, most professional social media campaigning that necessarily wins,” she said.

“It’s actually the social media campaigning that draws on the largest grassroots base. Duterte won social media, not because his campaigning on social media was good, but because he had so many supporters online to begin with.”

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